A thin man guarding the gate tells us that the guest house is not open to lay visitors. To enter the compound the permission of the collector is required. The Collector's office is easily two hundred kilometres away. Rooms were available, but since we did not know the collector and had not known that we needed his sanction to stay in the guest house, our luck had finally run out.
When we pleaded that we needed a place to stay on for the night in Chitrakote, we were directed to the premium resort down the road, where accommodation was available at a price for citizens unacquainted with Collectors. We drove the kilometre to the resort alongside the guesthouse, further down the road and discovered a reception centre and dining hall at the extreme end. The breakfast at New Delhi airport early in the morning had lived out its utility and our need for both food and shelter were by now, dire.
The young man at the desk offered to cook us some food and we gratefully placed an order. Accommodation was however proving difficult to access. Apparently, the resort only accepted online bookings.We had none. They had one room free, but they couldn't give it to us because we didn't have a booking. The shelter debate was postponed till we finished our meal, then we begged and pleaded with the chef cum receptionist for accommodation. He relented after a few phone calls and after putting in our bags in a deluxe villa room, we walked out of the room to see the waterfall in the evening.
The Chitrakote waterfall is sepia tinted in real life and in pictures. It is a stunning sight and the magnificent expanse of falling water travelling across deep channel and a wide gully is breathtaking. Near the waterfall are two large trees, inhabited by bats that swirl and fly around the tree tops, in the manner of bees around homing hives. Several bats hang down from the branches, looking pretty much like shreds of black fabric.
The access to the waterfall is a tacky compound A woman sits selling knives with bamboo handles and other odds and ends. A tea shanty faces her. No information can be gathered about this site, which is ostensibly our national heritage. Possibly, this is reclaimed and rediscovered country. Across the road, where the state owned guest house blocks off the general view of the waterfall, we order tea at a tea shanty, next to a new outlet selling ice cream and chips. A little down the road, adjacent to the guest house is a makeshift stall where food can be cooked on order, manned by a thin woman.
As we sit in an open courtyard, lined with multi-coloured left over tiles, a red mallard, who is possibly a recent immigrant, performs for passers by. We throw him some roasted kala channa, but he ignores our overtures of friendship and continues with his solo act.. We drink our tea, and watch him. A prancing red headed mallard is an extraordinary visitor in our everyday life.
A Shiva temple with a shiny white bull, possibly desirous of gazing at the waterfall but constrained by the guest house, sprawls on the other end of the road. Beyond the ramshackle marketplace, fertile fields, green with the labour of their owners, stretch out to the end and are ranged against the sky, The walk back to the premium resort, firmly cordoned off and gated is delightful. We gaze at the deep gorge, running a long way down the mountain. The resort has built a sturdy wall at the edge of the mountain but is dissatisfied with this. Now . large iron girders are being put up at intervals. These will hold up some variant of a mesh with square metal netting through which visitors who can pay for it, will get to view the Indravati river as it weaves its way, expansively accepting abundant bounty from the waterfall.
From our room at the resort, we view the waterfall, which is lit up at night. It continues to look ethereal, and the privilege of a private view of gorgeous cascades of water from our own balcony is not lost upon us. The next day, early in the morning, troops of sparrows wheel around the trees at the resort, reminding us to hurry and make the most of the day. We trudge back to the waterfall and it is time to say goodbye.
The Chitrakote falls is located in the vicinity of the Kanger Valley National Park, and includes another waterfall, caves and gorgeous stretches of dense jungle, now under state jurisdiction. This waterfall and the gorge surrounding it represent national wealth. Surely , as a nation we must be mature enough to ensure that this spell-binding beauty is accessible to every visitor who comes by? How can the collector's bungalow occupy a prime stretch of the view? Why is the view of the gorge and falls uptil the last viewable stretch cordoned off and presided over by a luxury resort?
In keeping with the plan of the national park, all this should have been unfettered territory, available to the ordinary citizen, to stroll, view and revel at will, Why should administrative offices and guest houses and luxury resorts indulge in such blatant land grab? The state guest house obstructs the view and is an encroachment that has neither aesthetics nor national interest at heart. When places of extraordinary beauty in our country remain the elite playing grounds of the bureaucracy and the well heeled private citizen, we are forced to demur because this is not the heaven of freedom that our founding fathers dreamt of.